Making Grassroots Advocacy Relevant to International SocietyA legal observation of the petition to the US White House against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement
In addition to making a compelling case for Taiwan’s self-determination as her inalienable right, a recent article on Thinking Taiwan paid tribute to the recently deceased Oliver Chen, a rising legal professional who played a key role putting international media in touch with the Sunflower Movement during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan earlier this year. The article concluded with a resounding affirmation that one should “continue the battle to make sure that Taiwan’s voice is heard.”
On this note, a sensible way to celebrate Chen’s life and passion is to further his work of making sure that Taiwan’s voice — arising from the grassroots — is not only heard, but that it becomes loud enough to bring about change. The timing could not be better, as thousands of people in Hong Kong protest against China’s control of its democracy. Residents of the Special Administrative Region face similar challenges getting their voices heard and rallying international support.
This article explores factors that can contribute to effective grassroots advocacy, with special attention paid to the techniques used by the Sunflower Movement. It critiques recently employed applications of electronic media to bring awareness of civic activism, and offers observations and recommendations on strategic approaches for using these methods to communicate with the international community.
Part I looks at the sign-on petition to the U.S. White House; Part II (to be published separately) will concentrate on the strategies used by citizen journalists, including the use of audio-visual presentations (e.g., the distribution of video material to news outlets by I-Reporters), as well as the production of documentary movies drawn from the author’s recent, empirical experience.
Petition to the White House
During the Sunflowers’ occupation, grassroots activists launched a petition using the U.S. White House “We the People” Website, which engendered active participation from both within Taiwan and abroad. The campaign, which urged the Obama administration to oppose the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China, received 110,000 “signatures” within a month from users from Taiwan and elsewhere around the world, exceeding the 100,000 signatures threshold necessary to trigger a response from the White House. In brief, citing violations of procedural and substantive justice by the Ma Ying-jeou administration in the CSSTA approval process, the petition touched on injuries that Taiwan might sustain upon its approval, including a compromised democracy as a result of the incremental influence from China. The full petition read:
“WE PETITION THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION TO:
Oppose Trade Agreement Between Taiwan and China
President Ma is trying to ignore normal review procedure and enforces to pass the trade agreement between Taiwan and China without any line-by-line review. This agreement will only benefit the China economy. Moreover, Taiwan will be invaded gradually: Taiwanese democracy will erode [sic] by Chinese dictatorship.”
At issue here is how effective — in terms of its impact and relevance — was the advocacy campaign? In other words, with more than 110K signatures gathered, was the petition relevant and impactful, to the extent that it was likely to induce an intervention from the White House? If not, what are lessons learned that might refine future action?
Although some may be tempted to view the petition as a success based on the number of signatures, others might have reservations as to its impact. My overall evaluation is that at best the petition was effective to the extent that it raised awareness; it was, however, less effective in making a tangible impact by inducing favorable U.S. reactions and bringing about change. Legally speaking, the petition has yet to include the critical elements of effective advocacy: the establishment of due jurisdiction, as well as a proper basis for seeking assistance.
The well-pleaded complaint
One helpful approach drawn from the legal world to advancing an effective grassroots advocacy petition of this nature is to include the elements of a well-pleaded complaint. Under the well-pleaded complaint rule, making a complaint — the petition — effectively should include elements such as a court’s jurisdiction (e.g., federal or diversity); the basis for the relief claimed (i.e., legally relevant laws and alleged facts); and the demanded damages for relief (e.g., declarative relief such as an injunction). Therefore, if the facts alleged in a complaint do not demonstrate an issue involving federal law pertaining to the plaintiff’s right to a cause of action, and if there is no question of federal law, the U.S. can safely ignore the petition, literally.
Although the petition per se is not a formal legal complaint, the nature and extent of the petition involving U.S. laws is. On this note, the well-pleaded complaint doctrine discussed here may serve as a point of reference for understanding the elements that characterize a convincing and persuasive petition.
First is a court’s jurisdiction that establishes the U.S.’ responsibility to respond to the petition. In this case, because what governs the U.S. federal government’s action is the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) — an act of Congress — it should be clearly stated as such, so as to establish a federal-question jurisdiction for the petition/complaint. In the present case, the petition failed to make any reference to the legal authority that was relevant to the alleged violations. Consequently, the U.S. had no jurisdiction or legal basis to intervene.
Second, the petition should document the legal basis for the alleged violations, and prove the facts of their relevance. The petition should articulate a legal framework for the complaint, i.e., the Taiwan Relations Act, and clearly demonstrate that absent U.S. action, how the parties may be injured — and of an equal importance, how U.S. interests may be adversely affected. The TRA stipulates that the U.S. government should closely monitor developments, and act preemptively, in due course by invoking Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, “… to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan,” when a situation escalates to a level that warrants U.S. intervention. The language seems to underscore that the security and stability of Taiwan is in the U.S.’ best interest.
Here, the petition cited that “… President Ma is trying to ignore normal review procedure and enforces to pass the CSSTA without any line-by-line review”, which “… will only benefit the China economy.” Will this affect Taiwan’s security and stability? Possibly, but the argument lacked clarity, and as such was not very persuasive. On the other hand, the last sentence in the petition may be more relevant, “… Taiwan will be invaded gradually: Taiwanese democracy will [be eroded] by Chinese dictatorship.” This is clearly more relevant to Taiwan’s security and stability and should be expanded accordingly to establish its relationship with US interests.
Third, the petition should prove any foreseeable injuries that might incur with legally significant facts, and articulate demands for relief, such as a declarative relief in the form of a preliminary injunction. Here, the petition requested the Obama Administration oppose the CSSTA without demanding any form of tangible intervention, such as injunctive relief. To make it effective and impactful, the “opposition” could be reduced to more tangible intervention.
So, based on the U.S. response, how effective was the campaign? The petition has yet to prompt a response from the U.S. government. For example, commenting on the movement, a U.S. State Department spokesperson affirmed that Washington supported Taiwan’s “vibrant democracy,” “robust political dialogue” and — in an apparent reference to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 — the U.S. reassured its confidence that the (largely student-led) protests against the CSSTA may not “spread and destabilize Taiwan.” Clearly, these are legally relevant facts that could trigger U.S. action against coercive forces that “jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan” as authorized by the TRA. Judging from the U.S. response, it appears that the petition served a declaratory purpose, as it raised awareness by internationalizing the protest; however, it fell short of making the case to warrant substantive U.S. support for an intervention.
Therefore, as is required for a well-pleaded complaint, it is incumbent on the petitioners to make a clear case that the CSSTA approval process, and the ensuring injuries that Taiwan might sustain, could constitute a coercive force that threatens Taiwan’s security and stability.
Last, a few caveats to the petition on the “We the People” Website. What happens if most of the petitioners are non-U.S. citizens? Can they still file the petition? It is possible, if and when the petitioners can make a case for the nature of the petition to establish a federal-question jurisdiction, and prove material injuries to the U.S. absent U.S. government action. In addition, the delivery of the petition should be improved. As well-intended as the petition is, to be taken seriously the petitioner(s) should exercise due diligence in proofreading the final draft, and make sure that it is grammatically correct by writing conventions before posting it for signing. A polished petition that is error-free would be more likely to be persuasive and convincing, and stands a better chance of being taken seriously and receiving a favourable endorsement.
By strengthening the elements of a well-pleaded complaint, improving on its delivery and selecting an appropriate advocacy forum, the petition could potentially be legally relevant and impactful. Alternatively, petitions of this sort could also be submitted to other advocacy platforms, such as Amnesty International or change.org.
Part II of this article will focus on “citizen journalists” and their approach to effective advocacy, including publishing in media such as I-reporters or presenting documentary films in international festivals.
Ed Hsu is a documentary producer and professor from Tainan, Taiwan. He directed the documentary One Voice–Occupying Taiwan Congress, an official selection at the New Taipei Film Festival and California International Film Fest at Glendale, CA. Hsu studied law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. He is currently an adjunct professor teaching policy and management in California.